Who are the “Americans?”

An Exhibition at the Museumsquartier’s Kunsthalle Suggests There Will Never Be Easy Answers

On The Town | Nayeli Urquiza | December 2006 / January 2007

Photo: Richard Avedon, Sandra Bennet

In times like these, when the US government is fighting a war condemned from the outset by the international community, the stereotype of an American seems to grow out of the shadow of the most visible political actors rather than the flesh and blood people who make up the country.  Red-State America has become the paradigm for the national identity, casting a pall over Americans living within and without the United States.

But who is really an American? In his review of Religious Pluralism in America: the Contentious History of Founding an Ideal, former Stanford professor Mark Oppenheimer cites historians like William R. Hutchinson who argue that Americans have long been "wasp in spirit."

However, the country’s history of immigration tells a different story. There have been at least three migration waves of the Irish, British, German, Scandinavian, Austrian, Hungarian and Russian migrants.   Add the later throngs of Italians, Chinese, Japanese and more recently the Hispanics -- now the largest minority with almost 43 million people – and "wasp in spirit" becomes harder to claim.

So who has the right to claim the "true" identity of a nation? A White American Anglo-Saxon Protestant? A Chicano? An Irish-American? The current photography exhibition "The Americans" at the Museumsquartier Kunsthalle hints that there is no simple answer.

The maze of images starts off with Robert Frank, a Swiss-born photographer who emigrated to the US during World War II and later became a US citizen. His 1958 book The Americans opened up a new way of looking at the people of his home. Filled with the spirit of Jack Kerouac´s On the Road, Frank wandered through the streets of New York and desolated highways across the US in 1955-56. He collected snapshots of a country that found itself on the verge of metamorphosis.

The American government had built a new identity as leader of Europe’s reconstruction, the only counter-weight to Communist Russia, and above all, the first government to possess and use a nuclear bomb. One photograph, "Hoover Dam," showing three postcards hanging on a rack outside a gas station, captures the paradoxes of the time. The first postcard shows the Grand Canyon, one of America’s great natural wonders; the second, the Hoover Dam, one of its technological marvels in the service of human welfare; and last, a postcard of a nuclear explosion, as the country stands holding the power of unimaginable destruction. Within Frank’s frame, the tragedy becomes eerily blended into place as yet another American landmark.

Photography and art critics have never found an adequate translation for Frank’s intentions through his subjects and composition. His style departed from the Henri Cartier-Bresson’s "decisive moment" in which an event’s meaning coincides with the forms imprinted in the picture. There is no picture perfect moment as there are no perfect subjects. Instead, photography seems to create an alternate home, where everyone, including the eyes of the photographer, are sheltered from time’s erosive forces. Frank saw a man and a woman lying on a beach about to make love. Click. On another beach, a homeless man lies sleeping, while a couple turned their back as if he were only a bump on the sand. Click.

This is any moment in America, and in this moment, the who is not on center stage.  The one who looks, either the photographer or the spectator of his work, holds the power and the responsibility for meaning.

"The Americans became a prophetic symbol for the rethinking of America –something that would become a universal consciousness and critical awareness of a younger generation within ten years of its publication," said critic Juno Cook  of the book in Exposure magazine.

Forty-eight years later, the exhibition Americans picks up on Frank’s legacy and presents similar works by 12 documentary photographers including Diane Arbus, Ed Templeton, Hellen Levitt, Burk Uzzle, Bruce Davison, Lee Freedlander, Ryan McGinley, Richard Avedon, Larry Clark, Peter Hujar and Gordon Parks.

"These works of photography do not seek to pass judgement, but put the judgemental power of he observer to the test," said Kunsthalle director Gerald Matt.

In the collage, "30 seconds in my shoes," Ed Templeton seems to tell visitors to just look at his close-up of a girl whose mouth is a couple centimetres away from doing a "blow job."  Provocative as they are, these pictures "are concerned with making statements without moral undertones," says curator Peter Weiermair

The subjects in Americans are people who live on the margin ignored by those who think of themselves as "normal."  Diane Arbus takes pictures of what some would call "freaks": a boy threatening with a toy grenade; an Albino sword-swallower; the aged and sleepy-looking king and queen of the senior citizens dance. But her eye is not condescending.  Quoted by the New Yorker in a 2005 profile, Diane Arbus said "most people go through life dreading a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats."

Burk Uzzle captured the "fashionable" outsiders, such as the hordes of suburban kids who peregrinated to Woodstock, while Bruce Davison visited New York’s unfashionable loners such as an impoverished old man freezing under the covers. The intimacy of the settings makes the work deeply and disarmingly human.

The subjects are not dissociated from the background for these photographers as they were for Frank, but they follow in his foot steps by questioning the marginal place these people are given. Using techniques of fashion photography, Richard Avedon turned a coal miner into a professional CK model. It is not a supermodel’s or an actor’s beauty per se, but rather the medium that catapults a celebrity onto the American image discourse.

Is there anything that binds the Americans together? They live in between the search for freedom and a harsh economic or social reality pushing them underground, away from the prototypical "American Way of Life," or the ethereal Hollywood. Frank himself, was not born in America, but still had the urge to find roots. Likewise, the subjects in this exhibit are outsiders looking for a home, perhaps for freedom, and for a dwelling place inside themselves.

Other articles from this issue